IN my daily work as a key account manager at the School of Executive Education AB at the School of Business, Economics, and Law at the University of Gothenburg,Sweden, I connect my academic background as a researcher of applied Nordic-Asian business studies with the planning of some of the training programmes for Swedish top executive managers, where they in turn bring their new found knowledge with them out into the world.
Part of my responsibility is to organise customised educational programmes for the managers of mainly Swedish owned or Swedish run international corporations. The programmes are held in English and mostly delivered in Sweden, though we have increasingly in the past few years, delivered programmes outside of Scandinavia. For faculty, we source the best local and international experts we can find that match the requirements of our clients. The programmes and modules often prove to be as educational for our clients as for our faculty, as it offers cutting edge perspectives on the themes under discussion.
Despite Sweden’s location in the northern outskirts of the world, the country is home to a considerable number of head offices for large international corporations. As such, Sweden is a natural recruitment base for many of its top managers and executive board members.
A recurring and poignant theme in Scandinavia for top executive education working on a global platform is how do we approach and manage different sets of values in an ever more interconnected and juxtaposed world.
One could look to answer this question from two complementing perspectives:
a practical one and a philosophical one.
On the practical side, and in a rather simplistic explanation, we tailor the programme content depending on the needs of our clients. Any issue that could possibly cause any concern
is brought up during the course of the programme and is evaluated and discussed towards the end of the programme.
But it is the philosophical perspective that I would like to expand upon here. This is the aspect that we as an organisation and institute for international management education continually need to ask ourselves—what are the values we can’t help but send along with the theories
and the models that we espouse and use? The question is made more complicated since even language in itself carries a thought pattern that reflects the values of the culture to which it belongs.
Swedish Management Style
As a Swedish educational organisation, we cannot help but represent many of the values that are still recognised as being the Swedish management style. This is a set of values of which the two most characteristic traits are consensus seeking and a lateral hierarchic organisation.
On a lighter note, one could say that these traits were inherited from the Scandinavian Vikings where the longboat captain was likely to have been a part of the crew, and who would have taken an equal part in business activities. When working with such a small organisation as
a ship’s crew, it seems likely that one would have needed to decide in advance exactly what to do and in which order to raid, pillage, and burn, for example. Anything except a full consensus supported by everyone’s conviction of the organisation’s goal in advance of action would probably have spelled immediate disaster and subsequent failure of the plan.
The Swedish management style is a group of loosely held values that though not carved in stone, are recognised by most Scandinavians as the ‘right’or appropriate way of doing things.
The validity of this observation could be demonstrated by the following interview excerpts with various top executive managers of Swedish owned multinational corporations, who have had the experience of working abroad. They share their thoughts about management and leadership challenges from a Swedish or broadly Scandinavian perspective.
Identifying Values Across Cultures
It is well-known that differences in cultures are what defines our multi-faceted world. One of the most significant defining factors of a culture is its set of norms and values. As with any tacit knowledge, the fact that you uphold a set of values as unquestionable truths usually goes unrecognised by the members of that specific culture. If noticed at all, people of that culture will perceive themselves as being right and everybody else are wrong.
In today’s globalised world, distances are shrinking, and more people are in contact with one another. This results in potentially increasing cultural tension since one set of values that makes sense in one part of the world might be utter rubbish in another part.
Transferring Appropriate Values Across Cultures
Studies conducted at the University of Gothenburg in the past years showed that one reason why international managers were sent out to subsidiaries abroad, was indeed with the purpose to serve as a ‘corporate culture carrier’.
The interview segment below is from a General Manager of a Swedish financial institute operating in Singapore. She reflects how abstract Swedish values were made concrete in the Singapore organisation. They flattened the organisation hierarchy and changed the balance of
control between top management and the employees in order to reflect values that were that of the Swedish mother organisation. The quotation below is verbatim:
“It’s important for [the organisation] to have Swedes or Nordic people, you can say it’s Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, to serve as cultural carriers. . . So in addition to the business tasks or business responsibilities, we also have the responsibility to transfer or carry over the culture. One example I can describe [was] when I took over as General Manager in 1998 for Asia. And at that point in time, there were nine hierarchic title levels in the bank, everything from junior clerk, clerk, senior clerk, junior officer, officer, senior officer. . . So nine title levels. But in the bank back home, we have three. So I changed that to three main levels. So that I changed, I [also] re-did the entire employment handbook because it was quite Singaporean style. It said more or less in every page that everything was at the discretion of the general manager, which is not the case in the rest of the bank. The staff have rights and obligations, and these are explained and informed in the bank’s employment handbook. So I took that away. . . so that instead of having one boss here and many people underneath, and he was giving instructions to all of them, I took away the boss and opened up so that the responsibility was on more people, and everybody had more to say, more to decide over, more influence.”
The study showed that this GM initially had difficulties to introduce these values, but that the process of change eventually took hold and a new organisational culture was successfully implemented.
This example is a good case, illustrating how international corporations function as value carries between cultures, where the influence from one culture to another and vice versa, is a dialectic process. Value exchanges work in both directions. In many cases, then management eventuallysettles for what works in their respective contexts.
Tackling the Unknown with Creativity
The case study method as such has ironically been described as ‘learning how other people have solved entirely different problems’. This concern was brought to bear as it seemed that multinational corporations were only just beginning to recover from the recent financial crisis
when a natural disaster hit one of the world’s largest economies, Japan, at the same time as the new democratic uprising in the North African states. Human suffering aside, these unprecendented events sent rippling waves across the globe with concerns of crippling the world economic recovery. As the events continue to unfold the possible implications on international business is multiplying.
What is painfully obvious today is that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. In order to solve new problems where there were no previous experience to draw from, you need to come up with new approaches, or let others help you come up with new approaches. And if others are to help, then what must be done is to reach out to them, one of the ways of doing so is by flattening the
Flattening the Organisation
In the core of Swedish management style lies the possibility of being “disobedient”. The individual employee is encouraged to be somewhat maverick, being flexible, creative, and innovative. Swedes encourage others to work outside of their job scopes. A serendipitous discovery for some Swedish managers however, is that the encouraged non-conformist behaviour works as a dialectic process, inspiring top managers as well. As observed in one
Swedish financial institute in Singapore, the General Manager also grew as a leader when the employees were encouraged to step out of their boxes and exercise their imagination in tackling everyday problems at work.
“I’ve used that expression, this is your box, today, find out what you can see outside of
it. There are at least two, maybe three, on a management level that have taken this
opportunity. And before, I myself couldn’t see at all that they had this. . . helicopter view. I
didn’t realise that they could, that they had it in them. But I’ve told them, okay this is your
chance! You have to do what you want to do with it!”
“I enjoy this learning process too as their leader, that they started to make their own decisions, they started to be creative, they started to be unafraid—big difference!”
A Managing Director of a Swedish company in medical supplies spoke about his experience in Taiwan, where one of the values he practised himself was to be flexible and less authoritative in his leadership style. He would rather consolidate ideas, listen to employees, and have them onboard towards a common organisation goal.
“. . . because if you have a typical Swede sitting there waiting for them, with the typical
Chinese who don’t dare to talk, nothing will happen. So as a Swede, you maybe take them
out [dining] and say I want to have a discussion, I want to have dialogue, I would like to have
consensus. The reason why consensus is good is because it would speed up implementa-
tion usually because people understand why things should be done, and it also can give you as a manager valuable information that you haven’t thought of. . . [so] we have our clear targets, we know exactly what to do and make sure there are no conflicts with the local management. I don’t control people, I give them a task and an objective and then I check if things are done. I don’t have to be there everyday because we had frequent contact.”
Diagram 1: Swedish Management Values and the Resulting Organisation Effects.
In different cultures, the view of responsibility for mistakes made and credit for successes are different. Implied in the above interview extract is that open communication between top managers and employees help build stronger teams.
“You need to delegate responsibility so that they can take care of it, but I will still have the
responsibility if they make a big mistake, it’s still mine. Still, I cannot say okay, you take
care of this, but I hound and check what you do all the time. You cannot do that. So you have
to decide if you can decentralise responsibility and then stay with that decision.”
The above are thoughts by IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad. Kamprad has often suggested that organisations who position themselves as perpetually fighting an upward struggle, regardless of whether they are world leaders or not, seem to benefit from leadership that are willing to take the blame for the failures themselves and give the credit for the successes to their team members.In the future, nations will ultimately need to be able to work together as one.
In the future, nations will ultimately need to be able to work together as one. With corporations bolstering national economies, and where corporate values constantly interact with national values, we will need to make space for one another. It is not a stunning realisation that values differ from culture to culture. But what is fundamentally crucial for international business
today is to raise this latent realisation that cultures differ, and actively work on its implications in the context of international business. We need to learn—and teach—that values are local and different all over the world. What distinguishes a manager from a leader is that the latter will then act on respect for these differences. This is the first step to recognise that we all do have a set of
values, and that these values that we think are “universal” might just be universal only to ourselves.
So, What Now?
To conclude, a final recommendation about what to teach the future leaders of our world would be (i) how to achieve open-mindedness on various levels—which is easier in concept than in practice; and (ii) how to cherish the difficulties—because difficulties spur creativity, innovation, and change. Challenges when faced are also the basis of learning and internalisation, where problems once solved, become the success stories of tomorrow.
At least, this is the current Swedish perspective and it is these themes that currently drive the direction of executive management education programmes in the Nordic countries.
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